Frustrated musician studies law to battle pirates in court

Albert Gacheru
Albert Gacheru is a musician of no mean repute. His song, Mariru, sped up the charts in 1990 and is still a favourite among many people.

The song, together with others such as Mumunya, propelled Mr Gacheru to local and international fame. His songs were even aired in foreign radio stations including Voice of America.

Such success made Gacheru to believe that he would not only earn himself a big name, but also big money from his music. He was terribly wrong.

He was soon to find out that ravenous River Road pirates were determined to bring his music career to its knees through the sale of pirated audio cassettes and later, compact discs (CDs) and thus keep him eternally impoverished.

His music shops and company premises at the Wamaitu Production Studio along River Road were burnt down or vandalised at least three times and expensive equipment stolen.

Gacheru says he has also received threats to his life through. He feels that his lawyers did fight hard enough for him whenever the suspects ended up in court.  His lack of knowledge in legal matters was always an impediment to getting a fair trial. But that may be a thing of the past.

Bring change

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In 2012, Gacheru, then 50, enrolled for a law degree at Mount Kenya University to better understand how the complex copyright law works so as to defend his work and assist other musicians. He graduated in December last year and is set to join the Kenya School of Law this month.

“I realised that this country has enough laws but few people, even those in business, understand the laws that relate to their businesses. I want to bring about a change in the laws governing copyright and social economic affairs of the country,” says Gacheru.

For Gacheru, the journey culminating in his going back to school has been long and winding. The father of three has always believed that one should approach any career as a serious, money-making business and try all they can to learn the rules of the game. Music, he says, should be no exception.

“I had opened a hardware store in the 80s in River Road and ran it as a serious outfit. I used the proceeds of the shop to get into music back in 1985. That is how I managed to record my first song, Mumunya, in 1987 that became an instant hit,” recalls Gacheru.

His prowess in the music industry attracted other musicians who were being exploited by unscrupulous business people. Through his record label, Wamaitu Productions, he helped produce musicians such as John DeMatthew of the Peris Nduku fame, Queen Jane, Shari Martin and Mary Wambui.

In the meantime, he also composed other songs including Hurry, Hurry Waithera (1988), Ya Ruanio (1989) and Mariru the following year.

“Many recognised there was money in music. These included pirates who wanted to reap where they had not sowed. I was determined, in my small way, to stop them in their tracks. Little did I know I was up against some potent forces,” says Gacheru.

Ever a fighter, Gacheru led teams of like-minded musicians and Government agents to flush out those pirating music in downtown Nairobi. The fight also took him to Kampala and Dar es Salaam where the pirated music had found its way. The pirates offered him what he terms as “hundreds of thousands” just to stop the crusade. He turned them down.

Instead, he gave them a “counter offer”. “I told them to return all the pirated music, become our agents and sell original music. That way, they would actually become millionaires,” he says.

To the pirates, however, the allure of selling stolen music had already set in and his efforts to convince them otherwise were futile. Gacheru became a marked man.

“They told me to stop fighting for other musicians and concentrate on my own music. I received death threats more times than I care to remember. I told myself that I would have to die one day and if it was at the hands of pirates, so be it. When these failed, they resorted to crippling my businesses through arson attacks and stealing production machinery,” he says.

In February 1999, the building that housed his hardware shop, the studio and production house went up in flames. Undeterred, Gacheru picked up the pieces and by 2000, the business was picking up again.

However, in December that year, he received information that his enemies were plotting to come and destroy it again as the Kenyans celebrated Christmas. Gacheru chose to forgo the festivities to stay in Nairobi and watch over his business.

Come January, the criminals found another perfect moment to strike.

“I had travelled home for a relative’s funeral when thugs came and carted away all my recording machines. This time, I was really crippled. I was servicing a Sh500,000 loan that I had taken to re-establish the business. Even some producers appeared to be happy with my downfall,” says Gacheru.

For the next seven years, the man who had so much hope and bright prospects in the music industry was wallowing in poverty. Even getting to the city from his in Kasarani home was a struggle.

“I had to wait for matatu fares to drop during off peak hours to get to town and made sure that I got back home before the evening rush hour when fares got higher,” he states.

Broken agreements

Between 1999 and 2003, Gacheru had taken a number of musicians and producers to court for flouting legal agreements. The musicians had breached their contracts with him, while the producers were reproducing his work without his approval.

“The cases dragged on for years. Sometimes I would go to court and some parties to the case would fail to show up. I fired my lawyer and chose to represent myself against the advice of the presiding judge. I became the plaintiff and prosecutor at the same time,” he says.

It is these legal challenges that pushed the veteran musician to go back to class. He hopes to use the knowledge he has acquired during submissions for a case that he filed 13 years ago, which resumes trial this February.

But his legal battle will not end in the courtroom. In 2017, he intends to run for the Ol Joro Orok parliamentary seat. Gacheru says local farmers, just like musicians, lack the legal knowledge to protect themselves from exploitation.

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